I am not a thin woman. Like 3 billion other women in the world, I wear a size 12 or larger depending on my mood, the phases of the moon or exactly how much Fowler's chocolate lurks in my household.
I have been thin, to varying degrees, at one time or another. There was a time, in my wayward youth, when I was dangerously thin, sallow-skinned and pallid - not unlike a bedraggled long yellow squash. Like 5 million other North American women, I once fell prey to an eating disorder. Thankfully, I snapped out of it before my bones did.
Through years of trial and error, despite the rise of the Waif Look as epitomized by poor demonized Kate Moss, through the rise of more "voluptuous" Brazilian models, to the growing celebration of plus-size models - I've come to accept my curves. Please note, "voluptuous" is a word fashionistas apply with equal abandon to former waifs, whose hip measurements are now, daringly, one inch larger than their size 30 busts, as well as to 190 pound plus-size super-model Emme.
Despite years of public watercress consumption, I've also admitted that I like to eat. This revelation led me to further accept the correlation between what I eat, how much I exercise, how I feel and how I look.
The bathroom scale, that inanimate tyrant, has long since been deposed. Listening to my body is a much preferable way to take care of myself than compulsively weighing, and then cursing, myself because I haven't lost a pound since the last weigh-in five minutes ago.
Once, while a guest at a friend's exclusive Manhattan health club, I witnessed an elegant 70-year-old woman do exactly that; I sent up a silent prayer that she had not spent decades performing that self-destructive ritual. My hard-won self-acceptance extends to the fact that like many people, I put on a bit of weight in the winter, only to take it off in the spring like some sort of seasonal hibernation suit.
Certainly, there are times when I'd like to be thinner - the height of bathing suit season quickly comes to mind - but I'm no longer willing to subject myself to the dire diets and medieval-torture-based regimes of my college years.
Genetically and culturally (I'm Sicilian and Scot-Irish - my people invented carbohydrates!), I am a tall, curvy woman whose ribs will not be publicly enumerated any time soon. It's small comfort that my body type was admired and celebrated in centuries past. Happily, popular culture has once more caught on - a little - to the inherent beauty and value of curvaceous women.
Mode magazine is filled with pages of gorgeous women size 14 and up wearing beautiful clothing. Super-model Emme has just launched her own line of plus-size fashions. Various forms of media feature lovely and talented plus-size actresses Kathy Najimy, Camryn Manheim and Caroline Rhea bedecked in high-fashion ensembles.
My goal is health, vitality and self-love through moderation in all things. It wasn't always so. In my late 20s, I came under the sway of a megalomaniacal personal trainer self-named AVI. Yes, all capitals.
He appeared enveloped in black spandex, gleaming darkly as he paced the floor of the fitness center in the office building where I worked with 100 other women. He was lithe, lavishly muscled and lean as a ligament. He flattered and fawned; he cooed in a tone I later recognized as the oily and unctuous calling card of the con man.
Workouts at the center were free, personal training extra. He was selling his time and his own line of supplemental powders and potions guaranteed to strip us "lovely ladies" of our unlovely excess fat.
My aversion to AVI was visceral. His girlfriend, a skeletal red-head with haunted eyes, worked out with him; one morning I witnessed him poke her in her non-existent stomach while she was in mid-sit-up and pronounce her a "pig," She froze and my stomach turned. Two weeks later, and even thinner, she passed out in the aerobics room.
Simple dehydration, AVI calmly explained to the stunned onlookers.
Sadly, she wasn't the only woman twisting in AVI's sphere of influence. One by one, my co-workers fell under his spell. Women, who previously moved from their desks only for lunch now skipped it to train under AVI's gaze. Several could be seen choking down powders and pills several times a day, for many his supplements replaced meals.
If this made them happier, or healthier, I'd have cheerfully supported them. I might have even tried the AVI-led aerobic-boxing-tantra class. Once. Yet they all seemed enervated, lacking in whatever self-regard they had begun with, and in some cases, now filled with self-loathing.
Constant hunger drove them to "cheat," and this led to hushed "confessions" in the inner sanctum of AVI's office. Cristelle, a once proudly full-figured African-American woman with alpine cheekbones, began coming to work swathed in shapeless shades of gray. Apparently, the all-knowing AVI decreed her much-loved jewel-toned wardrobe inappropriate; she had not yet "earned the right" to those bright colors, which he explained, drew attention to her size.
Gorgeous, queenly Cristelle skulking in gray baggies?
Poised Miranda over in accounting, picking fights with her supervisor, bursting into tears after weeks of AVI's super-powders and little else? Even Jimmy in collections was avoiding the water-cooler, restricting his liquid intake to get that "ripped" look AVI sported.
Was I witnessing mass-hypnosis? Appalled, I resisted. Although in the best shape of my life, my self-confidence was fragile; I never felt slim or alluring enough.
Instinctively I avoided the ubiquitous AVI. I became something of a challenge to him; perhaps he heard some of the more contemptuous remarks I made when the cult of AVI urged me to join them. Like many con men, he was equipped with a sixth sense for his prey's weak spots. Despite what I thought of as layers of protection - my sarcasm, my lone workouts, defiantly colored tights that stood out in AVI's monochrome kingdom, he found a way to get in a poison dart.
One evening, I came in very late, a bit depressed after a hectic day. I recognized the beginnings of PMS, nothing uncommon. Against all wisdom, I stepped on one of the many scales placed around the studio and found two pounds over what I wanted to see. Water weight, no doubt, but a small sigh escaped me.
You'd be happier if you just leaned out some. You know that. AVI materialized at my side, muscles twitching in his snakeskin spandex.
What? I nearly shouted.
Lean out! Lose the lard! he hissed.
I uttered a not very imaginative obscene directive, and exited to the dressing room, where his evil magic took hold. Suddenly I looked bigger; the dressing room mirrors threw back too much of me, AVI's battle cry of Lard! echoed in my head. Even as I cursed him, I couldn't stop it - I felt bigger. Why couldn't I lean out more? I worked out enough! What was it?
Still seething, I stopped at the grocery store to pick up dinner. Hungry and agitated, I stalked the aisles unable to settle on anything edible. Everything I touched summoned the ringing voice AVI-Lean out! Lose the Lard!
Steak -- no way. Cheese -- ha! Lard! Chicken -- don't kid yourself, it's still meat! Lean out! Lose the lard! Trapped in a culinary Twilight Zone, I grabbed a big package of tofu, ran to the checkout and fled home.
Eschewing oil, or flavoring of any kind, lest the voice of AVI be summoned to berate my growing bulk, I sliced the tofu and simply warmed the slices in a skillet. Pure protein! Yes! I could feel my virtue returning. No lard! I was on the way to leaning out!
What the hell is that? My husband eyed his plate suspiciously.
It's tofu, smart-ass.
He poked it. Ah, yes he intoned, Please, sir, may I have another slab of tofu quivering in its own juices?
My mouth full of the tasteless substance, my empty stomach growling, my head buzzing with the last echoes of AVI-isms, I burst into tears. And then I started laughing, hard.
As Paul gingerly cleared the plates of now-ice-cold tofu and heated a can of soup, I recounted the scene at the fitness center.
You mean that little guy? He's probably threatened.
Because I'm bigger than he is?
No, because you're taller. (Funny, I hadn't really thought much of it, but I was almost 6 inches taller than the great AVI.) And you haven't joined his club.
True, I had successfully avoided membership in the house that AVI built, and until that night, I had not succumbed to his notions of the ideal female body. I actively encouraged his acolytes to think for themselves, throw off the gray garb and reclaim their power. How that must have irked him. How it irked me that I hadn't taken my own advice.
Nobody can get your goat if you don't have a goat to get. Suddenly, my mother's voice put in an appearance. Only you can set the goat free.
OK, enough with the proverbs; I get it. Or rather, I began to get it: If I don't accept myself as I am, the negative opinions of others will hold too much power. If I accept myself first, their power evaporates. I must decide what to let into my own sphere of influence.
If you think that sounds like the beginning of a chanted mantra, you're not mistaken; a little positive repetition can do wonders when you find yourself bombarded with commands to be and do and look a certain way.
Yet, no matter the fashion or cultural trend, no matter the flavor of the month splashed on billboards -- Kate Moss or Emme, Ally McBeal or Camryn Manheim -- I'm responsible for accepting or changing my body and all it supports inside and out.
I never spoke to AVI again, though I worked out at the fitness center until I found a new job. I breezed by him with a smile as if he didn't exist. Months later, Cristelle called to tell me the news -- AVI was fired, charged with embezzling funds from the center.
This Christmas, a friend who works as a personal trainer gave me a copy of "This Can't Be Tofu: 75 Recipes to Cook Something You Never Thought You Would -- and Love Every Bite," by Deborah Madison. I've found that with tofu, as with a lot of things, it takes time to get your perspective. I recommend the Lacquered Tofu Triangles with Green Beans and Cashews.
MAURA ALIA BRAMKAMP is a freelance writer who lives in Buffalo.